Monday, January 22, 2018

6 "Hygge" Ways to Love Winter and Grow Spiritually

"6 hygge ways" by Kayla Knaack (
Copyright 2018 Kayla Knaack. All rights reserved.

As the second half of January sets in, winter always seems to lose its luster. Christmas decorations are taken down and the holiday cheer is packed to the attic with them. New toys are already missing pieces or needing replacement batteries. The beauty of December’s pure, glittering white landscape gives way to January’s murky road slush.

Not to mention this year I’m in the last couple of months of pregnancy, which always seem to take about 1000% longer than any other month of the year.

Living in Wisconsin, it’s easy to see why nearly a quarter of Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depression which strikes in the colder months as less sunlight and changes in circadian rhythm trigger dips in serotonin, melatonin, and Vitamin D. Winter blues, cabin fever, hibernation season. Even if you don’t have full-blown SAD, most of us have experienced some part of the spectrum.

Vitamin D supplements, eating more fruits and veggies, and lightbox therapy have all proven effective ways to treat the physical effects of the season, but for the past couple of winters I’ve also been trying to lean in to the season by taking a cue from the Danes. At around 56 degrees latitude, Denmark experiences nearly as many hours of winter darkness as Juneau, Alaska. Winter temperatures average 28 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet Denmark and its Scandinavian neighbors Sweden, Finland, and Norway are consistently ranked in the top five happiest countries in the world (the United States typically ranks somewhere in the teens). If you ask the Danes, one of the keys to their happiness is their embrace of the winter season which can be summed up in one word: Hygge.

Pronounced “hoo-ga,” hygge is a Danish word roughly translated to well-being, but more expansively used to express an inner sense of warmth, coziness and merriment. It’s a chosen state of mind to cultivate contentment in the winter months. Those who master the concept enjoy roaring fires, candles, hearty meals, and the company of friends and family.

Copyright 2018 Kayla Knaack. All rights reserved.


 Here are six ways to bring Hygge to your spiritual life this winter.

1. Take a candle-lit bubble bath … with prayer

Nothing takes the chill out of your bones like a hot bath. Soothing bubbles and scented candles will turn your nightly routine into a spa-like experience. Add to that a meditative prayer like the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and you’re sure to find yourself re-centered in no time. Prayer is physically, mentally, and spiritually rewarding. Check out the Rosary Foundation to learn about the rosary’s effects on blood pressure, migraines, serotonin, immunity, sleep, and more. (If you’re a relative beginner like me, check out scriptural rosaries on Youtube which give a few verses of scripture before each prayer to keep your mind focused on Jesus.)

2. Curl up by a roaring fire with a good book … better yet, make it the Good Book

Another hyggeligt (the adjective form of hygge) way to pass a quiet winter night at home is to grab a warm knit blanket and plop yourself into an inviting chair near a fireplace. Feel the warmth radiate as you delve into a book illuminated by the fire-lit glow. Make that the book the Bible, and that warmth and illumination will permeate your soul.

Copyright 2018 Kayla Knaack. All rights reserved.

3. Invite friends over for a weeknight dinner party

The best way to beat cabin fever is to socialize. Always keep a few friends who don’t expect gourmet meals or a spotless home, but can just drop by on a weeknight to break up the monotony. A big pot of soup, a hearty casserole, craft beer, and dessert … this is no time to be scrupulous about your New Year’s resolution! Bonus points: invite a family from your parish that you’d like to get to know better, newbies in your community, or your parish priest. (And if you’d rather not host, most restaurants could use the extra business this time of year!)

4. Host a freezer meal party

Are you sensing a theme here? Food and friends seem to be the key components to getting through the winter in Danish style … add in music and mulled wine, and it’s a party! With a baby coming in March, I’m definitely going to make some time this February to stock my freezer. Lasagna, sloppy joes, soup, and enchiladas all freeze well. In the coming months, the freezer meals can also be used to reach out to those in your parish who might be grieving, sick, or injured.

5. Visit the elderly

Winter can be especially hard on the elderly and shut-ins. They experience the same Vitamin-D drop and serotonin drop as the rest of us, compounded by the depressing effects of social isolation. As charitable Christians, we should always strive to comfort the lonely. Why not bring the hygge to them? Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s (or grandfather’s, or great-aunt’s, or other miscellaneous elderly acquaintance’s) house we go! Bring a deck of cards, your Bible, or just plan to talk. Their spirits are also brightened with the presence of children, who can in turn benefit from the company of the older generation.

6. Shovel your neighbor’s driveway or sidewalk

Hygge doesn’t always mean snuggling under a blanket in your warm house. In fact, one of the most important elements of embracing the winter months is to go outside and face the elements. While it’s admittedly hard to absorb much Vitamin D when only your face is exposed to the sunlight, the psychological benefits of being outdoors extend beyond the vitamin. In fact, according to a series of studies published in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, being outside makes people feel more alive. Just 20 minutes in nature can significantly boost vitality levels. Add to that the endorphin surge of exercise and the spiritual boost of loving one’s neighbor, and shoveling a neighbor’s driveway seems more like a favor to the person shoveling than to the neighbor. (Ok, I live out in the country where neighbors plow rather than shovel driveways. Plus I’m seven months pregnant. So I’ll personally be passing on this one … making snow angels might be more in line with my activity level!)

Copyright 2018 Kayla Knaack. All rights reserved.

 As the years go by, I seem to be learning more and more how to embrace the joys of each season. What are your tips for getting through winter?

Copyright 2018 Kayla Knaack

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Feast of the Holy Innocents

“Massacre of the Innocents” by Peter Paul Rubens – Ken Thompson the Collector: The Thompson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Public Domain, Link

December 28 marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, or “Childermas.” The feast commemorates infant boys in the Bethlehem area who were massacred by order of King Herod after he heard of Christ’s birth. Herod was so attached to his own power and glory that he was willing to sacrifice innocent children to preserve it. They are considered the first Christian martyrs.

For a haunting reflection on the feast, listen to “Coventry Carol,” an English Christmas carol traced back to the sixteenth century as part of a mystery play called “The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors.” In the song, mothers sing a sorrowful lullaby to their lost babies.

What a jolt! From celebrating a newborn baby to mourning the loss of others.

Unfortunately, evil persists. Our society continues to cast aside innocent children in selfish pursuits, whether it be through abortion, the marginalization of impoverished children, or the maltreatment of foster children.

Too often, our children are caught in the crosshairs of power-seeking adults.

Even in our own homes, so quickly we go from delighting in the Christmas-morning faces of our children to counting the days until school is back in session. From praising their Nativity pageant performance to excusing them from next week’s Mass. From spoiling them with treats and presents to New Year’s resolutions to tighten belts.

Too often, our children are like presents cast aside.

As we turn our attention towards the New Year, let us heed the message of the Feast of Holy Innocents and not let children become the victims of our selfish whims. Instead of focusing resolutions on climbing the ladder, let us instead stoop down to embrace the least among us. As their presents lose appeal, let us gift them with our presence and His presence.

We are in the final steps of creating a Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program for Shawano and Waupaca Counties. As we look to the New Year, I hope you will consider supporting the program to help our area foster children.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Extending the Joy of the Season with the 12 Days of Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone! We had a great weekend that seemed to have just the right balance of quiet peace and noisy, ear-splitting, joyful chaos (after all, anyone who has been through labor knows that the First Noel would've anything but a Silent Night...) 

After taking it easy during Advent, I'm ready to extend the Christmas celebration to the real twelve days of Christmas-the days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Wise Men visited Jesus. I wanted to do something to extend the fun without spending a lot of time, effort, or money (a common theme in these parts...).

I found a couple of good websites for inspiration. This one explains the history behind the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song (hint: the random "true-love" gifts all have hidden meanings) and gives some great family activity ideas to celebrate the various feast days throughout the twelve days. This one also gives great Christian historical basis for the twelve days. They got my wheels turning to come up with a doable, last-minute plan for our family that would play on the gift that the kids decided Jesus would want most: love.

Each day the kids will open an envelope which will include a Hershey's kiss to symbolize Jesus's love for them along with instructions for a simple activity aimed at showing love to Jesus and/or celebrating a feast day. Here's what I came up with:

125-DecChristmasGo to Mass, celebrate with family, sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus
226-DecFeast of St. Stephan the martyr(traditionally give to the poor) read Acts 6 & 7, listen to Good King Wenceslaus, letter  to Agnes (our sponsored child)
327-DecFeast of St. John (traditionally "day of reconciliation") write Christmas thank-you notes
428-DecFeast of the Holy Innocentsread Matthew 2:16-18, collect toys to donate to children
529-Dec Blow bubbles to Jesus
630-Dec Go to Mass, take a gift suggestion from the parish Christmas tree
731-DecFeast of the Holy FamilyDo something special as a family, later NYE Party
81-JanSomemnity of MarySay the Magnificat or Rosary (6:30 Rosary @Marion?)
92-Jan Bake star-shaped rice krispies, talk about the Wise Men
103-JanFeast of the Holy Name of Jesus"Names of Jesus" coloring page
114-JanFeast of Elizabeth Ann SetonGo to Library, read a Christmas book (St. Elizabeth was a teacher)
125-Jan Clean house in preparation for the Epiphany, Stargaze
 6-JanEpiphanyGo to Mass, "Merry Christmas St. Mary" party, chalk doors, bless house

I'm hoping that the extended celebration helps draw out the joy of the season and remind us that Emmanuel-God with us-is something to celebrate every day.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Building Christmas Traditions

In the beginning of our marriage, Christmas Eve and Day meant a lot of driving around to various family functions, stuffing our faces with rich food, and struggling to accommodate baby nap schedules. Due to some shifting of holiday schedules and our children getting a little older, the past couple years have been much different. Suddenly our Christmas Eve and Day plans are relatively open, and given that our children are now reaching long-term-memory ages, I’ve been thinking about trying to institute some holiday traditions for the five (almost six) of us.

We have a few traditions already which came about organically: 1.) We stuff stockings for The Feast of St. Nick on December 6th, 2.) We light Advent candles on Sundays, 3.) We tell the truth about Santa, 4.) On Christmas morning, the kids each get three gifts each to mirror the three gifts that the Wise Men gave Jesus, and 5.) We attend mass Christmas Eve and/or Day.  This year we also did Advent calendars for the first time, and thanks to the inclusion of chocolate, the kids made sure we didn’t forget!
This year, a combination of procrastination and intentional minimalism has lead to a much simpler Advent season. I didn't send out cards, step foot in a mall, or make any cookies or candy.
I was going to use this for a Christmas card. Then I decided everyone on my mailing list can just view them on Facebook!
Our massive Christmas tree stands in front of me completely unadorned. At this point, I think we might as well embrace the old tradition of not lighting the tree until Christmas Eve.

Also, our Nativity is still packed away in the attic…I’m going to go ahead and say that was intentional as well…I’ll get it out for the Christmas Season rather than the Advent Season.

For the past three years, I’ve surveyed Louisa about how Jesus would want to celebrate his birthday, and it has been interesting to see her answers mature. When she was two, it was a “Cars Party." When she was three, it was a “Disciple Party.” This year, “He just wants love.” A few days after asking her this, I followed up. “How do you think we can give Jesus love for His birthday?” She suggested we find a way to throw it up to Heaven for Him. I thought about releasing some balloons, but the farmgirl in me doesn’t want to litter our neighboring fields, so I think we may try to blow some love-bubbles up to Heaven.

(Oh, and this reminds me that I need to ask Vic how he thinks Jesus would like to celebrate His birthday!)

Obviously, our young family’s traditions are all a work-in-progress. I’d still like to add something special for Christmas Day itself, so I'm reaching out to you for ideas. What traditions does your family enjoy? Are you doing anything new this year?

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Catholic Hero's Journey

Pixabay (2015), CC0 Public Domain

This November I decided to go out on a limb and try something new: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short).

The goal: 50,000 words in 30 days.

The challenges: usual kid/job responsibilities, gun-hunting season taking hubby out of the equation, Thanksgiving break.

I knew if I were going to be successful I would have to plan ahead, so back in October I began to learn about novel plot structures. There are so many options! Three-Act Structure, Five-Act Structure, Save the Cat, Twenty-Seven Chapter, etc, but what appealed to me most was the Hero’s Journey.

Hero’s Journey is a structure popularized by Joseph Cambell with the 1949 book Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he applied the structure to many ancient myths and world religions, including Christianity. In fact, C.S. Lewis lauded the Hero’s Journey, asserting that Christ is the fulfillment of the stories written in our hearts.

Here’s the basic structure applied to Jesus’s life:
  1. THE ORDINARY WORLD: The world before the Incarnation.
  2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: The Incarnation.
  3. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR: Jesus meets John the Baptist in the Jordan and is baptized. The Holy Spirit descends and God announces that Jesus is His Son. His *baptism foretells the baptism of the Holy Spirit as opposed to John’s baptism of repentance.
  4. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD: Jesus immediately goes into the dessert to prepare for his public ministry.
  5. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES: (The bulk of the journey) Jesus is tempted in the dessert, He gathers apostles and disciples, they perform many miracles starting with the miracle at Cana which sanctifies *marriage, they perform *anointing of the sick, Pharisees and Sadducees debate with Him.
  6. THE ORDEAL: (a turning point) Jesus faces his antagonist (death) and raises Lazarus.
  7. THE REWARD: People cheer Hosanna as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. At the Last Supper Jesus institutes the *priesthood and the *Eucharist.
  8. THE ROAD BACK: The Passion, Jesus must face death head on.
  9. THE RESURRECTION. (climax) The Resurrection, duh. Jesus conquers death.
  10. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. Jesus returns and breathes the Holy Spirit to the apostles, which they will later pass along through Pentecost and the laying on of hands in *confirmation. In the next line, He gives them to power to *forgive sins.
*Note, the institution of all seven sacraments are integral parts of His journey.

So then I got to thinking: if we are called to follow Jesus, how can our lives as Catholics follow the Hero’s Journey road map? Certainly we are all born into the ordinary world with original sin. Our call to adventure is our baptism. Meeting with the mentor is our catechesis. In confirmation we cross the threshold when we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and sent off into the world as soldiers for Christ.

Sadly, for many Catholics the journey stops there.

We become disillusioned by the trials of our lives, strained relationships, financial hardship, health struggles. But the reality is that all of these difficulties are part of the “tests, allies and enemies” segment of our lives, preparing us to meet our purpose.

If we just stay the course, learning from our tests, leaning on our allies, rebuking our enemies, and relying on the sacraments, we may find ourselves approaching a turning point. This is the ordeal, where our life’s purpose will be revealed. As Christians, it is likely to come in the form of a cross, but His yoke is easy and His burden light. If we carry this on the road back, we can meet our ultimate climax of the resurrection, and go on to receive the elixir of eternal life.

As the saying goes, you are the hero of your own story.

Where are you in the journey?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Honoring Baby Therese

In honor of the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux I've decided to share something I wrote four months ago to honor our miscarried baby. I never meant for this letter to be public, and I'd rather be spared awkward sympathy, but if my words help even one person process the pain of a miscarriage, they will be worth posting.

To my dear Therese Miriam,

It has been a week since God took you back. You were in our lives for such a brief span of time that I would’ve thought it would be easy to go back to the way things were before. I didn’t think it should be this hard.

After all, we put the Lord in charge of family planning years ago, and through this we have learned to trust in His will. I trust that you’re safe in the arms of Jesus. You’ll be raised by saints free from the evils of this world, a perfect flower tended by the Master Gardener. I can’t wait to someday see your lovely face.

I know, too, that miscarriage is so very common and natural. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, so statistics were not on our side. I’m comforted to be surrounded by so many women who have walked through this dark storm to later be renewed by a rainbow of hope.

Yes, my reasonable brain told me this shouldn’t be too difficult. I spent many moments this week basking in the sunlight of late spring amid the giggles of my living blessings, feeling perfectly normal. I was grateful that we hadn’t told many people about the pregnancy, making it easy to simply move on like nothing happened.

And yet, it has been incomprehensibly difficult.  My breath has been stolen at the horrendous thought of flushing a life down the toilet. My heart aches at the indignity of pretending you never existed.

It has been said that, “Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” (-Elizabeth Stone). Your life was just a few fleeting weeks, but it only took a moment to give my heart away.

So I will honor the part of my heart that walks in Heaven.

I named you Therese after Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower.” Like you, she was too delicate for this world. A sickly girl, she was too weak to fulfill any great mission. Yet through her writing she taught us that even the smallest, weakest flowers among us can leave a lasting legacy.

Your middle name is Miriam after the little girl who watched carefully over her brother Moses. Louisa had prayed so fervently for a sister, but we hadn’t yet told her we were expecting. On the night I started bleeding, without explanation she began crying inconsolably and had to sleep in bed with me. Please watch over her and your brothers as Miriam did for Moses.

I will plant a rosebush in your honor and have a mass said, but most of all I will try to learn from this experience. I know that even the shortest of lives has a divine purpose. I believe that the labor of suffering can give birth to profound grace. What does God want us to learn through your brief life?

Maybe it’s the stronger hope of Heaven to finally meet you. Maybe it’s the realization that none of our children are our own; they are God’s flowers for us to tend so they’ll bloom for His glory. Maybe it’s the acceptance that our surviving children can never experience the perfect childhood that you will in Heaven. Maybe your death will bring our family closer together in gratitude for each other.

Whatever gift the Lord is giving, I pray for the graces to unwrap it.
Until we meet again,

Finding a way to honor Therese's life paved the way to healing. Four months later, I am happy to report that we are once again expecting a new family member! Oh, and that rosebush I bought to honor Baby Therese? It's been blooming all week leading up to today's feast day.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Small Town Blessings & Sharing the Bounty

In the past couple weeks we’ve been blessed by many moments that make my heart swell with gratitude for small-town life.

It all started at the school open house. I have to admit, I was a little nervous to send our first child into the big, scary world of pre-school. Believe it or not, Marion seems big compared to the K-12 school I attended. My nerves were immediately calmed, though, when Nate proudly pointed out the coat peg he himself had used as a kindergartener. One look at the class list and we recognized a handful of familiar last names. These country roots run deep.
A few days later, we went to the county fair where the smell of fried food and shavings instantly transported me to my dairy and swine showing days. We watched a few rounds of swine showmanship and I was shocked when Louisa expressed an interest in participating in the Pee Wee division. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to find an FFA member willing to take her under her wing. They’re planted in fertile soil.
That Sunday, we attended my favorite little country church where Victor decided to lay on the floor under the pew while the two-year-old behind us mirrored his posture. Little did the two boys know that they are actually fifth cousins, but their strong German genes give them the same fair skin and wispy blond hair. The branches are strong and wide.
At one point, we found ourselves sitting around a circle of friends while the mob of kids hunted for frogs. It’s hard to believe that a few years ago it was just us adults. What will these gatherings be like in ten more years? Will we be watching our kids compete in homecoming football games? In twenty more years, will we be celebrating the wedding of two of these munchkins? The harvest will be plentiful.
I cherish this small-town life. To me, the barn quilts that dot our rural roads represent the warm spirit that blankets our community. We’re enveloped by our history, our farming heritage, our families, and our faith.
At the same time, my heart aches for those in our midst who feel outside of the blanket. The foster child whose last name is unrecognized or carries a shameful reputation. The autistic child who could so benefit from interacting with a fair animal, yet all the local farmers seem to have no room in the barn. The child in church whose skin and hair color doesn’t match the child behind him. The child who’s rarely invited to birthday parties or playdates because no one knows her parents.

We’ve got a good thing going for us out here in God’s country. As we approach a new school year this autumn, I’m resolving to share the bountiful harvest with all the neighbors around us.

I hope you’ll enjoy us for our first annual Pigeon River Oktoberfest this Saturday. It’ll be an event to celebrate heritage, community, family, and local businesses. The event will also serve as a fundraiser for the development of CASA of Shawano and Waupaca Counties, an excellent way to extend the warmth of our communities to those who need it most. CASA is an acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates, and the organization will pair community volunteers with children involved in Child in Need of Protection and/or Services (CHIPS) cases in our court systems. Volunteers work to establish a trusting relationship with the child in order to develop resilience and advocate on the behalf of the child in court. Come to Oktoberfest to find out how you can help support this worthy organization!